Tag Archives: pliny the younger

Fortune favours the bold (but does she?)

Wheel. Of. Fortuune! (Carmina Burana, page with ‘O Fortuna’; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660, f. 1r)

One evening, my wife and I were walking with a friend who needed to catch a bus. As we waited to a cross a mildly busy street, we saw the bus on approach. I called out, ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ and ran across the street to hold the bus for them. This event stands out as one of my ‘loud in public and never to be forgotten moments’ (up there with ‘Gandalf is just a wizard’).

But I’m not sold on Fortune’s favour. The famous instance of someone making this proclamation is Pliny the Elder on his approach to Pompeii during Vesuvius’ eruption. He directs the ships towards the volcano:

‘Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat.’

They evacuated some people (so maybe Fortune did favour him?), but, after strapping pillows to his head to keep the rocks from hurting him, Pliny the Elder stayed behind to observe this natural phenomenon. You can read about it in his nephew’s letters, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16.

I will have the joy of teaching Vergil’s Aeneid at UBC this Autumn, and I’ve been rereading it preparation. Here we see, Book 10.284, Turnus:

‘audentis Fortuna iuuat.’

Unfortunately for Turnus, the fates are against him. He and the other Italians may do very well in the ensuing battle, but by the end of Book 10, Aeneas has essentially become a giant, an elemental force of destruction. And at the end of Book 12, Turnus will lose his life.

If Turnus had been prudent, had not slain Pallas, he may have lived long enough to gain some sort of reprieve, or a treaty, or something. Instead, his daring (Latin audeo means ‘to dare’) brings destruction on many of his people and ultimately his death. The Trojans win this war, ultimately, and make marriage alliances with the people of Ausonia.

How much easier it would have been for everyone without Turnus’ boldness.

Not, one hastens to add, that this exonerates Aeneas of his Incredible Hulk-style ragefest of slaughter.

Ultimately, Fortune favours … no one. This is a main theme in Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Fortune smiled on him for a time — a good marriage, the joint consulship of his sons. That sort of thing. But now he’s rotting in prison, doomed to die. This is the way the Wheel of Fortune turns. One may be king, at the top, one day, and a peasant at the bottom the next.

Fortune is fickle. Fortune may favour the bold Turnus today, only to have him slaughtered at the hand of his enemy the next.

In order to attain a state of lasting felicity, one must fix one’s attention on things beyond the domain of Fortune, fixing one’s heart on things above. This is what philosophy is for, and this is what Boethius is taught in the Consolation.

Reading Vergil, and seeing forces driven by Fate or the gods, this is worth thinking about.

Letters as Literature

Pliny the Younger

The idea of writing a post such as this has been floating around in my head for a good, long while now. Letters, epistles, epistolography, are often thought of as ‘sub-literary’ or ‘documentary’ ‘evidence’ for the study of the history of a particular period or person. That is to say, the value of the letter as a piece of writing is to be found in the information which the scholar or other interested party can mine from it.

The implication, on the other hand, that letters are actually literature says that letters are intrinsically interesting of themselves. That is to say, you can read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger of Ambrose of Milan or Leo the Great or Boniface or Abelard and Heloise or Erasmus or J R R Tolkien or C S Lewis for themselves rather than for their content alone.

I am not arguing that letters are not useful documents — from them we learn the tastes and friendships and horrors of individuals as well as, quite frequently, the events of their times. So Cicero’s letters to Atticus of the latter part of 50 BC and through 48 BC provide the student of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey an interesting and informative angle on this highly important Late Republican series of events. Or the letters of Pope Leo the Great from 448 through 455 are important sources for the events leading up to and resulting from the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Nevertheless, what I am saying is that letters are more than simply useful documents. They are interesting documents. Without knowledge of Latin, certain varieties of artistry in the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-113) can come to the fore concerning how he constructs his identity or the concerns of what good style and oratory are. The art of philosophy is readily apparent in many of the letters such as those of the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) or the controversial philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142).

If you can read letters in their original tongue, be it Latin or Greek, English or French, you can get a glimpse of their artistry in another manner. For Cicero the orator is not stylistically identical to Cicero the epistolary correspondent. Likewise Leo the Great. Not having read any of the letters of C S Lewis (1898-1963) as an adult, I cannot say for him, but I would be unsurprised if his letters differ from his essays and lectures in terms of style as well.

Furthermore, an investigation of the style of these letter-writers will reveal their use of literary devices, from devices of sound to puns to literary tropes. I, myself, have done an analysis Pope Leo the Great’s Letter 28, the ‘Tome’, and have found it full of rhetorical devices of balance and antithesis, thus mirroring the theological content of the letter.

Of course, my reference to Leo’s ‘Tome’ brings up another issue surrounding the literariness of letters. All letters, whether real ones such as Cicero’s or fictive ones such as C S Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, are written with a particular audience in view. Many of these, however, including many of Cicero’s, have a wider immediate audience than the ‘intended’ recipient — most famously, the letters of Paul the Apostle (AD 5-67) have found themselves in almost every language on earth in the hands of people living in places the Apostle did not know even existed. Certainly, Paul did not think of the Papuan living in the 21st century when he wrote. Yet he was also undoubtedly thinking beyond the Corinthians of his own day as well.

Thus does Leo write his ‘Tome’ to Flavian of Constantinople yet put enormous rhetorical effort into it, not only in the devices employed but also in the cadence and rhythm of the words, consistently using a prose rhythm known to us best from Ammianus that will last throughout the Middle Ages, but also the prose metre known to us best from Cicero. This consciousness of a wider audience in the letters of people such as Cicero or Pliny or Leo or Erasmus leads to more careful artistry in both the original copy as well as in polished versions presented for publication.

This careful literariness in so many of the famous epistolographers of history should make us pause when we read them, then. How are we to say that this is a less ‘mediated’ version of the character we are reading? Pliny has polished his letters and arranged them to produce a particular vision of himself. Leo has similarly polished his letters and sought to uphold certain values throughout. Who knows what that pope would fear and wonder in the dark nights of Vandal invasions of Rome?

All of this is to say — read some published letters. They run through a range of subjects from oratory to philosophy to poetry to any other piece of literature to art and architecture to theology to politics to daily life to economics. They do so with a certain style that raises them above mere ‘documentary’ evidence for the past.

Recommended Letter Collections (chronologically)

Ancient

M. Tullius Cicero. I would recommend them all, but they are legion, so read D R Shackleton Bailey’s Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) instead. Online: The complete letters in English at the Perseus Project.

L. Annaeus Seneca. A nice sampling of Seneca’s letters is in the Penguin Classic Letters from a Stoic translated and selected by Robin Campbell.

Pliny the Younger. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics). This corpus is short enough that you can read them all; furthermore, there is much to be said for reading an entire collection of letters as its author/editor intended.

Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s letters vary greatly in subject matter; therefore, to get a sense of the man, read the selections gathered in the Translated Texts for Historians volume, Political Letters and Speeches as well as the small sampling in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ambrose volume, available online.

Pope Leo I (the Great). No translation exists of all of Leo’s letters, but the bulk can be found in the NPNF volume, available online, and a somewhat different selection in the volume from The Fathers of the Church, translated by Edmund Hunt.

Medieval

Boniface. I’ve not read all of Boniface’s letters, but I found those I did read to be of interest. There is a recent edition by Ephraim Emerton, and they are also available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Peter Abelard. There is a Penguin Classic, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, where I first met these two star-crossed (and on his part castrated) lovers/monk and nun.

Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, as a ‘Renaissance’ humanist, takes up many of the perceived ideals of epistolary writing found in Pliny and Cicero. A selection is available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Modern

C S Lewis. Letters to Children. This I own and enjoyed in my youth.

—. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. This is an interesting series of fictive letters to a correspondent called Malcolm. An interesting project from a literary standpoint.

—. Letters. Walter Hooper has edited all of them, I think; but there must be a ‘selected letters’ out there for the faint of heart!

J R R Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter.

—. Letters from Father Christmas. This amazing volume contains letters Tolkien wrote in the person of Father Christmas to his children. It is a delight!

There are, of course, many more bodies of correspondence out there to be discovered. I just know very little about them or have not read them at all, so I am not keen to recommend them. Add your own recommendations in the comments!

Your art and its value (sanity and immortality for all)

Bosch found immortality if not sanity through his art.

I close every e-mail I send with the following quotation:

It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. -GK Chesterton, Heretics

I believe Chesterton here. I believe that each of us should produce his’er own art — be it the art of music, of dance, of gardening, of poetry, of blogging, of painting, of sculpting, of musical theatre, of cooking…

So many of us wish to be involved with or to produce something of lasting value in this world, do we not? In Letter 1.3, Pliny the Younger writes to Caninius Rufus:

Why don’t you — for it’s time — commit lowly and paltry cares to others, and plant your very self with your studies on that high and fertile retreat? This business ought to be your leisure; this work your quiet; in these your vigils, in this even your sleep should repose. Fashion and compose something that would be yours forever. For the rest of your affairs will come by lot after you to one and another master, but this will never cease to be yours if once you begin it. I know what spirit, what natural cleverness I encourage — you just shine forth so that you may be for yourself as great as you will seem to others if you are to yourself. (My trans.)

Pliny is here encouraging Caninius Rufus to engage in the leisure of scholarship, of writing books or analysing books or philosophising and all those things that are part of the leisure of a Roman aristocrat. This, says Pliny, is what will be a true legacy; all that other business, of home and commerce and government, will come into the hands of others.

As a PhD student and blogger, this is encouraging. What is it that lasts, what is a great endeavour? A business empire? A well-laid garden? The purchase, like Jay Gatsby, of an enormous house? All these can crumble and fall; all will be passed on to one and another when I die. But not my writing; not my art that keeps me sane.

Indeed, has not Pliny himself become immortal through his self-published, highly-stylised letters? Is not the temporal immortality of G K Chesterton found in his multitudinous writings — the essays, the poems, the novels, the books? Wagner, whose Das Rheingold I am listening to right now, is immortal through his music; Rodin through his sculpture; Michelangelo through the agony and the ecstasy of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

And Thucydides was not wrong when he wrote, ‘My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten’ (History 1.22.4, trans. Jowett) — for people still read him today, and not just Classicists (we being a breed who do read some obscure texts).

When I think on this, on the quest to make art to keep sanity, to gain immortality, to survive in a dark world, I am pleased and encouraged by my friends who are doing just that. I have two friends, Ryan (plays with Doublechief) and Liam (solo awesomeness), who are taking the rock star route to immortality; my friend Mae makes glass jewellery (you can buy it here); my friends Andrée and Jennq are the artistic directors of Caithream Celtic Dance Fusion; Pip keeps up age-old traditions of art and beauty (visible here).

There are many other friends in the arts — my blogging siblings, one of whom used to write for Marvel Comics, another of whom writes young adult novels; friends involved in music at their local churches; friends who play in amateur orchestras; my piano-teaching, church-choir-leading mother; and no doubt loads of others who escape memory right now — if left out not, not really forgotten!

So I hope that you will not simply consume the art around you — music, books, sculptures, paintings, gardens, films — but make a little art yourself. Find sanity, immortality, light in a dark world.